For legally blind couples like Stacy and Max Fleisher, Broadway musicals were always a half-enjoyed affair. With limited vision (him), or none at all (her), they were missing much of what made the performances so special. Elements like bright lights, colorful costumes, and unspoken facial expressions were a mystery.
"We usually shy away from seeing musicals because... so much is missed," said Stacy.
That all changed in 1981 when Dr Margaret Pfanstiehl of Metropolitan Washington Ear invented the practice of audio description for Arena Stage in Washington, DC. The program Pfanstiehl and her husband Cody developed, which features trained "describers" providing detailed but unobtrusive commentary on everything from the color of a woman's dress to the height of the set's walls, was seen as a major step forward in arts accessibility for the visually impaired. The same techniques would eventually be applied to movies, television and even museums. And in 2010, President Obama signed the 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act, which mandated that the top four broadcast networks and top five cable networks provide four hours of audio description for their top 25 markets.
In New York, Healing Arts Initiative, or HAI, continues Pfanstiehl's work as it began — live in the theatre. The non-profit, which aims to "remove barriers to arts and culture" offers the service to a variety of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows for free and is only one of a handful of organizations, including the Theatre Development Fund, to provide the service locally.
HAI's trained "describers" detail the scenery, costumes, characters and action live from the back of the theatre, using a wireless radio. The grant-funded initiative, known as Describe!, even provides discounted tickets and orchestra seating. (Upcoming shows are announced via an email newsletter and on their telephone concierge service.
Currently, HAI has three volunteer describers, which limits the amount of shows they can provide services to. (They currently manage about one show per month.) Cross says they are currently training more describers, utilizing a mentor-mentee approach, and are always auditioning more.
Despite growing government support, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, and advocacy groups, like The Alliance for the Inclusion in the Arts, live AD is still in the minority. In addition to HAI's Describe! program, only six of the nearly 50 shows currently on Broadway offer pre-recorded AD services. And those six shows, Wicked, Newsies, Mamma Mia!, The Lion King, Jersey Boys, and The Book of Mormon, are some of the longest running and highest grossing in New York, hinting that producers' reluctance to invest in pre-recorded AD — let alone live description — may relate to Broadway's general unpredictability and already high costs.
This is an issue, argue HAI's live describers, who feel their work is now a vital and important service. "If you've ever been to more than one performance of a production, you will know that every night is different. Being there in person is the best way to accurately reflect what is happening on stage," said Laura Congleton, an HAI and TDF describer who has been providing a variety of audio description services to the blind for the last 21 years.
She said she has been disappointed in what she sees as a decrease in the number of shows utilizing live description, opting instead for the pre-recorded tapes which synch with lighting and sound cues. She also pointed out that the wireless headsets used during performances haven't been updated in two decades. "I'd love for the theatres to start reaching out to us, rather than us having to knock on their doors," she lamented.
The Fleishers agree, noting that the live descriptions they enjoyed at a production of Nice Work If You Can Get It "were so detailed and vivid."
"[HAI] paint the stage with [their] words, and it means so very much to those like me who have no visible colors anymore," Stacy Fleisher said.
The couple say that good descriptions can change the whole experience for them. "Without these wonderful descriptions, I usually miss so much," admitted Stacy. "But with it, I feel like I miss almost nothing. It really makes it such a beautiful experience."